What Is Heroin

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    Heroin is stigmatized for the grisly pictures that even the word evokes–haggard, zombie-like users with holes in their arms.  While other opioid addictions may be less noticeable and more easily justified (especially prescription addiction, which is often unapparent until the user turns to harder drugs), heroin leaves no doubt.  In order to better address the problem, it is crucial to understand what it is and the effects it can produce.

    Heroin is an opioid, which means that it derives from the opium poppy.  Opioids (also known as narcotics) dull the senses and are known as the most powerful pain relievers in history.  The euphoria and pain relieving effects of these substances are recorded as far back as ancient Sumeria, circa 4000 B.C.

    Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid, meaning that it starts with compounds isolated from natural sources and is then created synthetically.  It is processed from morphine and is distributed as a brown or white powder or a black, sticky substance (known as Black Tar Heroin).  It can be snorted and smoked, but its most common form of consumption is through injection.

    How Heroin Works

    The brain and the nervous system contain opioid receptors, which are parts of the cells that bind to endorphins (pleasure-producing and pain-managing hormones).  Heroin mimics endorphins and acts on the opioid receptors of the brain to extend their effects.  This is what produces the rush of euphoria or “high”.

    Other effects of heroin include dizziness, a feeling of heaviness and as if the person can’t move, temperature changes and nausea.  Users may begin to feel tired, detached from their bodies or the world around them, and experience decreased mental or physical capacity.  Sharing needles increases the risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, and overdose is another risk.  Because heroin depresses breathing, overdose can prove fatal.

    Over time, the body will stop producing its own endorphins and instead becomes reliant on heroin to do so.  Hence the downward spiral of the drug as the user soon requires it just to feel normal.

    Heroin, like most opioids, is extremely addictive.  The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed in 2009 that over six hundred thousand Americans over the age of twelve had abused heroin at least once in the year prior.

    What Is Heroin Paraphernalia

    Understanding the materials used in heroin consumption may help you recognize addiction in a loved one.  If users are snorting it, you may find traces of white powder on hard surfaces and things used as tubes such as rolled-up dollar bills or cut straws.  Pipes are used in smoking.  In the case of injection, the following may be used:

    •    Something used to tie off the arm in order to enlarge the veins, such as a long rubber band, scarf, belt or tie.

    •    A spoon is used to dissolve black tar heroin.  The spoon is typically bent so that it lies flat when placed on the table.  Users may also find other rounded containers, such as cut-out soda can bottoms or bottle caps.

    •    Hypodermic needles.

    •    Cotton balls are used to strain the drug.

    •    Balloons are used in heroin transport and trafficking.

    •    Small folded papers of plastic bags continuing powder heroin.

    •    Razor blades or rolled up papers or dollar bills for snorting the drug.

    The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that new heroin users doubled from the years 2007 to 2008. This number has continued to go up with many new, young users who are snorting or smoking the drug instead of injecting it.

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